Government officials, from the president to Gov. Janet Mills, are scrambling to contain the coronavirus. These efforts, rightly, focus on public health measures — such as cancelling large events and curtailing travel — and on economic stability.
As with other disasters or unforeseen events, those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are most harmed by these disruptions. A missing paycheck because they were forced to stay home without paid leave or a school or daycare closure can spell economic disaster for many Americans.
It also means that many children could go hungry.
That’s why it’s good news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted states waivers to continue food service programs even if schools are closed.The waivers allow schools to provide meals at remote locations and for the meals to be picked up and taken home.
Currently, nearly 80,000 Maine kids — more than 43 percent of the state’s school population — rely on free or low-cost school breakfast, lunch and after-school meals for their basic food needs. If schools closed, as they have in several states, as part of an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, those children could go hungry.
“Our schools are often a critical partner of Maine families to ensure that our children receive nutritious and consistent meals” Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said in a statement Wednesday. “I am grateful for the advocacy of the Child Nutrition Team and for the response from USDA, allowing our schools to continue with this important work, regardless of any interruption that may occur due to school closings.”
Mills has not recommended K-12 school cancellations in Maine, but the waivers mean that children are protected in case schools are temporarily shuttered.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Chellie Pingree pressed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue for a commitment that these waivers would be granted. He said the department could not issue blanket waivers without being asked, but that waivers would granted.
“If you ask, we are going to say yes,” Purdue said during the hearing.
“For the one in five Maine children experiencing food insecurity, their school meal is often the only one that they receive each day,” Pingree said in a statement. “As schools across the nation take precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19, it’s vital that states have flexibility to continue providing meals to students off-site. I am grateful that the USDA has moved swiftly to approve Maine’s waiver and to prevent kids from going hungry during this public health emergency.”
This is one example of the many small, but meaningful, steps that governments — at the federal, state and local level, will need to take to ensure that families don’t face unnecessary hardships as the U.S. seeks to minimize the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.